The Rio Grande Valley is bounded to the east by the Gulf of Mexico, to the south by the Rio Grande River, and to the north and west by an enormous desert of thorny shrubs.
It is the eastern edge of America’s southern border.
There are two highways that cross this border region. About eighty miles to the north of the Rio Grande, the US government has set up permanent inspection stations on these highways, effectively adding a second border to the Rio Grande. People travelling north along highway 77 or highway 281 are stopped and inspected by border patrol agents, who are part of the national security apparatus.
An immigrant who does not have the documentation that the US government requires for their travel north may choose to leave the highway at a point before these checkpoints, and set out through the brush country in an attempt to slip past the agents.
The area surrounding the checkpoint is an endless desert country, featuring low, thorny vegetation and a loose, sandy surface that, insult to injury, is as hard to walk on as beach sand.
Many immigrants manage to make it through this desert.
A month ago I received a phone call from a woman who was desperate to know if there was anyone who could help her find her son. “One of the fellows who was travelling with him said that my boy had collapsed, and that they had had to leave him under some bushes. . .they said that the spot that they had left him was about a two hours’ walk from this place called Falfurrias. Could you go and find him?” she asked, and then broke down in tears, answering her own question with her grief.
Last Saturday, I went to visit this place of grief. I was in the thoughtful company of a group of medical students and physicians, good people whose hearts have not been hardened by fear. We drove up past the Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias, Texas to the offices of the South Texas Human Rights Center, where Mr. Eddie Canales and Sister Pamela Buganski, the administrators of the project, welcomed us, and gave us an overview of their work. Amongst many things, Eddie and Sr. Pamela maintain forty-seven water stations placed along the trails that the migrants are known to use. These stations are large blue barrels filled with sealed, one-gallon water bottles and marked by a Red Cross flag flying about thirty feet above the barrel. Eddie will also recover the corpses of migrants who died in the scrub, and, on occasion, assist in a rescue effort.
As Eddie talked about the challenges of befriending local ranchers (the migrant trails cross private property), Sr. Pamela passed around a binder that had color photographs of some of the bodies that Eddie had recovered. She also shared out several pizzas and sodas. Eating pizza and drinking orange soda while looking at the remains of those who had died of thirst. I don’t even know how to comment on that experience.
We then helped Sr. Pamela load up seven large, blue plastic drums that had “AGUA’’ stenciled on the sides, several one-gallon water jugs, and some lengths of pipe into the back of a pickup truck. The pipes were used to fly a Red Cross flag that marked out the location of the water.
As we got ready to leave, Sr. Pamela dictated, “Everyone needs to have a bottle of water in their hand. You will need water where we are going.”
With that, we set out into the Wild Horse desert, taking a long drive along a county road that became two lanes of hard-packed sand. During the drive, Eddie didn’t make a single reference about the biblical mandate to offer a glass of water to one of the least ones, nor about the privilege of anonymously saving a life. Instead, he spoke of the United States Constitution.
“When I put out the water and raise that flag, I am expressing my first amendment right. With that Red Cross flag, I am saying loud and clear ‘these are people, they are human beings’”, and then he added, “If we forget that, as a nation, we are in a mess of trouble.”
The significance of Eddie and Sr. Pamela’s work goes far beyond the lives they save, or the needed reminder that immigrants are people. They, and the many, many others who advocate for a more human way of life along the border, are of a different cut than the many, many others who fear, stigmatize, and hunt down immigrants.
The most expensive part of Eddie and Sr. Pamela’s operation are the Red Cross flags. “For some reason,” Eddie remarked, “Vandals like to steal the flag. I guess making the immigrant into a human being, someone who deserves the protection of a Red Cross, is just too much.”
The afternoon sun began to cast its long shadows, and we left the two good people finishing up their work. As the wind whistled and moaned through the lonesome brush, I noticed the Red Cross flag marking the water station stood tall against the blue sky. It was saying, in Human, “Hey! Stop and have a drink. You will need water for where you are going.”
(To make a donation to the work of the South Texas Human Rights’ Project, follow this link).